LE CHATEAU DU LANDGRAAB
As soon as he woke up, Benjamin walked to the window to let the fresh air in the room. “I think it’s gonna rain,” he sighed when he saw the dark sky. Sunbeams glittered on the surface of the Seine river, birds sang happy songs in the trees, fresh breeze played with the curtains on the window, but the clouds in the distance didn’t look promising.
“We better get to the nectary before it starts pouring,” he said and jumped back in the bed right next to Elisabeth who slowly opened her eyes and leaned in for a morning kiss.
“Good morning,” she mumbled, still half asleep.
“Morning,” Benjamin laid another kiss on her soft, pink lips. “I guess you’d like me to order the breakfast to the room?”
“What a lovely idea,” she yawned.
Nearly one hour passed before they were finished with breakfast. When they finally got out of the hotel, the sun was shining even brighter then before and the sky was baby blue. They rented two red Kenspas from the hotel and headed up the hill towards the Champs Les Sims Nectary.
They parked the mopeds by the white fencing where the ingredients used to make the delicious beverage grew.
“Maybe we could grow some grapes and make our own wine,” pondered Benjamin when he observed the vineyard.
“I think you need a lot of sun for that. Moonlight Falls doesn’t seem like the perfect place to me.”
“Monte Vista does,” Benjamin smiled at Elisabeth and took her hand in his. Elisabeth looked at him with excitement in her eyes. “Does this mean?”
“Just wait and see,” he said, gently kissed her on the right cheek and headed towards the entrance. Elisabeth remained standing by the vineyard for a few seconds trying to figure out if Benjamin was really planning to move to Monte Vista to live with her and her family. She imagined them planting the first grape seed in the garden while Chloé played with Snowball by the little pond near the stables.
“You coming?” he called at her from afar. Without saying a word she quickly ran after him, silently smiling to herself.
“Let’s hope their wine tastes as good as the grapes. Wanna try some?” Benjamin asked Elisabeth when she caught up with him.
“Where did you-”
“You’ve been standing over there for nearly five minutes, you know.”
“Oh, was I really?” Elisabeth asked herself rather then asking Benjamin.
“What’s that over there?” Benjamin called out when he saw something crawling amongst the grasses. He looked at Elisabeth with the eyes of a little boy. “Would you mind if I went to give a look?”
“Go, I’ll be inside,” she told him smiling. Elisabeth kept on smiling to herself until the moment she entered the nectary. Maybe there was a long life full of love and happiness waiting for her after all.
“Bonjour,” she said politely, trying hard to sound like a native speaker. However, her accent gave her away.
“Good morning,” the woman standing by the counter welcomed her. “I see you’re not from around here. May I help you?”
Ugh. You’re so clever. Elisabeth thought to herself. “Thank you, I’ll give a look.”
“Fine. If you need anything, I am right here,” the woman informed her, sounding a little offended. She probably wanted to praise all the best wines to the potential customer, but unfortunately for her, Elisabeth didn’t come here to do shopping. I see, Elisabeth said to herself and went to hide from the sight of the merchant behind the nearby rack.
There was something unsettling about the woman. Her piercing eyes observed Elisabeth’s every move. Like an eagle carefully watching its prey. Her forced smile never disappeared from her face, neither when she spoke. Her cold, unconcerned voice asked the same question everyone who came in the shop.
Meanwhile, Benjamin was trying to convince the parrot he found behind the nectary to crawl up on his arm.
At first, the bird didn’t trust him much, but after Benjamin tried to feed him the grapes he picked earlier in the vineyard, he quickly gained the parrot’s trust.
“Good boy! You look like you haven’t eaten in days!” Benjamin said to the bird and gently pet his head.
“Good morning, may I help you, sir?” the cold voice asked again when the next potential customer came in.
“Hi, no, I’m fine. I’ll just give a look around. Thanks,” Benjamin said politely and looked around the shop searching for Elisabeth.
“Excuse me, but animals aren’t allowed here,” the merchant informed him.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I won’t stay long. Have you seen-”
“Sir, animals aren’t allowed here,” the woman repeated what she said not ten second ago, still with a smile on her face.
“I know, you told me already,” Benjamin answered with a very relaxed tone, which made her even more upset.
“Sir, you have to-”
“I know, I know,” Benjamin interrupted her. The parrot moved his head to the side, trying to understand what were the two talking about.
“Sir, I ask you one last time, please, take your pet out of my shop!”
“Quiet, woman!” the parrot suddenly interjected.
“Hey buddy, I didn’t know you could talk!” Benjamin said in astonishment and moved the bird from his shoulder on his arm.
“I’m really sorry, ma’am, but you heard him.”
“This is outrageous! Get out of here! Both of you!” the merchant lost the patience and screamed at Benjamin. The very moment, Elisabeth felt a sharp pain in her abdomen.
“Elisabeth!” Benjamin called at her when he noticed her standing behind one of the racks.
“Hey…,” she said with a weak voice.
“Is everything all right?” he worried.
“Yes, I think…,” said Elisabeth and tried to regain her strength. “Nice parrot,” she attempted a smile, but the pain was too strong.
“Isn’t he awesome? I think I’m going to take him home with me,” said Benjamin and put the parrot back on his shoulder.
“Such birds aren’t part of the local fauna. Didn’t you think that maybe he belongs to someone?”
“Hmm. I think you’re right. I’ll go and ask around. Maybe someone will recognize him.”
“Wanna come with me?”
“No. I still have to ask the merchant about James.”
“Okay, I’ll see you later at the hotel, then,” Benjamin smiled at Elisabeth and to the merchant’s immense happiness, finally walked out the door.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Elisabeth decided to apologize for Benjamin and the parrot.
“Let’s pretend it never happened. Did you find something you like?” she asked Elisabeth and her forced smile came back to her face.
“I didn’t come here to shop for your undoubtedly delicious wines.”
“Oh,” the merchant was taken aback. “What brings you here, then…?”
“Excuse me. I’m Elisabeth. Elisabeth Loewe,” Elisabeth presented herself.
“Pleasure to meet you, Elisabeth. I’m Edith Morel,” said the woman and they shook hands. “So, why did you come here if you’re not interested in our wine?”
“It’s a really long story,” sighed Elisabeth. “But I think you can help me.”
“Help you? How?”
“I came all the way from Shang Simla to ask you about James Vaughan.”
“What? You say you’ve come here from China? That’s on the other side of the world!”
“Yeah… it is. So, does his name tell you something?”
“Oui, oui. I know this name. My grandfather Pascal used to tell me stories about this James when I was a little girl. I really loved my grandfather. He founded this nectary, you know? He was really a great man, my grandpa. So kind and generous…”
“Did he know James? Your grandfather?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Could I talk to him?”
“Talk to who?”
“Your grandfather Pascal.”
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s not possible,” said Edith and her smile suddenly disappeared.
“He died over twenty years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“He died in a great fire, right here, in this nectary. My father has rebuilt this place from scratch. It looks exactly the same as before…,” Edith didn’t finish the sentence, took her embroidered handkerchief from her small purse lying below the counter and wiped the tears away.
“I’m really sorry about this, Edith,” Elisabeth expressed her regret and remembered about the fire that nearly killed all their horses… and her mother. “I didn’t want to bring back the sad memories.”
“I believe James Vaughan got into a fight with Monsieur Landgraab and rescued some woman or something… It’s been so many years since I last heard the story…”
“And this Monsieur Langraab. Does he have any descendants?”
“Yes, he does, but they no longer live in Champs Les Sims.”
“Bad luck,” Elisabeth shook her shoulders. “Thank you anyway, Edith. I think I might buy a bottle of wine at last,” said Elisabeth and walked towards the nearest rack. “So, how do I understand what the wine tastes like?” Elisabeth asked Edith when she grabbed a dark purple bottle from the rack.
“My grandfather always said, ‘To know the real taste of wine, one must give it a try’.”
“Are you saying that I can taste it first?”
“Of course! You must!” Edith smiled at her and motioned her to come to the counter. She picked a bottle opener from below the counter and opened the bottle. She poured some of the pink liquid in a glass and handed it over to Elisabeth.
“Thanks,” Elisabeth smiled at Edith and sipped from the glass.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s delicious! I can feel the sweet taste of strawberries sparkling on my tongue.”
“Of course! It’s a strawberry Champagne, one of a kind.”
“I think I’m starting to like it here. May I try something else?”
“Sure, just pick a bottle,” Edith smiled at Elisabeth. Her smile looked very different this time, it was warm and friendly. And so Elisabeth tasted nearly a dozen of different wines, all tasted great.
“How are we supposed to decide which one we like most? They’re all so good!” Elisabeth said to a random customer who was checking the wines in a nearby rack.
“Everybody who comes here never leaves without at least one box. They simply cannot decide,” the blonde woman told Elisabeth.
“How many bottles are in a box?”
“Well, then I think I would leave with two.”
“You’re lucky you can afford it,” the blonde woman smiled at her.
“I said I would. I can hardly afford a bottle of the strawberry Champagne.”
“It’s one of a kind.”
“I know,” said Elisabeth and walked to the counter. “They all taste like heaven, Edith! If I could afford it, I’d buy all of them,” she complimented on the taste of Edith’s delicious beverages.
“Thank you. My grandfather has dedicated all his life to wine. He used to say the red wine ran in his veins. So, which one will it be?”
“I really do love the strawberry Champagne.”
“Just that it’s a bit pricey. I cannot afford it.”
“My grandfather always satisfied everybody. I’ll make it a half price for you,” Edith smiled at Elisabeth.
“Really,” she confirmed and picked a brand new bottle of the strawberry Champagne from the rack behind her. Elisabeth was about to leave the shop when Edith suddenly called at her. “Wait! I think I know a person who could help you! … Maybe,” she added, less enthusiastically.
“Really? Who?” Elisabeth turned at her with hope in her eyes.
“Jean Luc Beaumont. He’s the descendant of Landgraab’s groundskeeper. He lives at 3 Orchid Road. It’s the large house behind the Hôtel della Ville.”
“Thank you so much, Edith!” Elisabeth’s eyes sparkled with happiness when she learned that all hope wasn’t yet lost. On her way to the hotel, Elisabeth drove by Jean-Luc’s house. She was tempted to stop by and ask about James Vaughan right away, but the thought of Benjamin waiting for her at the hotel made her change the mind. Tomorrow was another day.
When she got back to the hotel, she told Benjamin about Jean Luc and that she could be able to find Vaughan’s keystone with his help. Benjamin was happy about it in the beginning, but when he realized that Elisabeth needed the keystone in order to enter the tomb of the Scourge of Three Kingdoms, he begun to worry about her, trying to talk her out of returning to China.
Later that day, after they did a little bit of sightseeing, they discussed this topic again over dinner. When Elisabeth understood that there was no way in convincing Benjamin about the safety of her trip to Shang Simla, she proposed to spend the rest of the evening in bed, drinking the strawberry Champagne. Benjamin was more than happy to agree with the idea.
When the morning sun came out from behind the mountains, a new day dawned on Champs Les Sims. Elisabeth and Benjamin seemed to really like their room a lot, because until now, they’ve spent nearly half the time of their vacation in bed. And of course, this morning wasn’t an exception.
“What do you say about going out for breakfast?” Benjamin asked Elisabeth.
“Do we really have to? I really like it here,” she said sensually and caressed his leg.
“Me too. I just don’t want to spend the last day in bed,” he kissed her and got up.
“Hmm… And where are you going to take me?” she asked sleepily.
“What about… a bakery?”
“Hmm… Maybe I’d like a cupcake… or a muffin…”
“Or both?” Benjamin smiled at Elisabeth and put on his new trousers.
“Deal,” said Elisabeth and winked at Benjamin.
“I think they’re still closed,” Elisabeth told him when they finally came by a bakery shop.
“Maybe there’s another place somewhere near that’s open …”
“Like where? Haven’t seen any. Come on, let’s try,” said Elisabeth and walked to the door. She grabbed the doorknob, but wasn’t surprised when it wouldn’t turn.
“See? They’re closed. Let’s find another place… We’re in France, don’t tell me this is the only bakery in town.”
“It might be, but I hope it isn’t… for your sake,” she said and playfully punched him in the arm.
“For my sake?” asked her Benjamin and was about to punch her back when an elderly woman came out of the door, talking in French and motioning them to go inside. Benjamin and Elisabeth exchanged their surprised looks and then walked in the bakery. The lady made them sit down at a table, probably not noticing that they’ve been silently staring at her all the time. She walked behind the counter and started praising one cake after another. When she finally named it all and asked them which one they’d like, Elisabeth finally got the chance to speak up.
“Je suis désolé, madam, mais nous ne parlons pas français.”
When the woman heard Elisabeth say they didn’t speak French, she pressed her hands together and look up at the ceiling. Then she started talking to them again, this time in broken English. She actually sounded very funny. However, as hard as they tried, neither Benjamin nor Elisabeth could make a sense of what she said, so they just stood up from their chairs, walked up to the counter and pointed at the cakes that inspired them the most. The lady happily smiled at them and placed the cakes on little plates. The language problem was solved.
“So I’ve been wondering… What age do children start school in Italy?” Benjamin asked Elisabeth a very unexpected question.
“Why are you asking me this?”
Benjamin met Elisabeth’s puzzled gaze and shrugged. “You know, Chloé’s growing like a weed and I wouldn’t want to miss the primary school enrollment application deadline.”
“I want to move to Monte Vista, Elisabeth,” he said and placed his hand over hers. “I love you.”
Later that morning, Elisabeth took Sin Pah’s journal from her luggage and headed towards Jean Luc’s house. She rang the doorbell and waited. After some time, the door finally opened.
“Bonjour, I’m Elisabeth.”
“Bonjour, Elisabeth. How can I help you?”
“Edith Morel told me you’re the descendant of Landgraab’s groundskeeper.”
“I would like to ask you some questions, if you have time,” Elisabeth nicely smiled at Jean Luc.
“What is that?” his curiosity arose when he noticed she was holding a book in her hand.
“That’s a journal I obtained from a person in Shang Simla. His grandfather traveled the world with James Vaughan and kept a journal of his adventures.”
“Did you say… James Vaughan?”
“Mhmh,” Elisabeth nodded her head.
“Please, come on in,” told her Jean Luc and motioned her to go inside. “Would you like a cup of tea or a glass of lemonade?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“So, what would you like to know, Elisabeth,” Jean Luc asked her as they entered in his living room and sat down on the sofa.
“Tell me everything you know about James.”
“Well, I don’t really know much more than any other person living in Champs Les Sims. You see, James Vaughan is a local hero, a legend.”
“He rescued Anastasia Necteaux, the inventor of the delicious nectar beverage. Landgraab sent his men to kill her, because he probably wanted to take all the credit for the invention, that of course, he didn’t invent. However, his plans were foiled.”
“And what happened to him then? Did Vaughan kill him?”
“I don’t think so. It would have been better if he did, though.”
“Why? What happened?”
“After Vaughan left Champs Les Sims, Anastasia mysteriously disappeared. My personal theory is that Landgraab imprisoned Anastasia in the tomb beneath his chateau and let her starve to death.”
“So he managed to carry out his plans after all,” stated Elisabeth.
“Yes. It’s such a sad story,” Jean Luc sighed and looked at the painting hanging above the fireplace picturing a middle-aged man with glasses and a tall hat. “My grandfather worked as Landgraab’s groundskeeper. He used to tell me stories about Anastasia and Admiral… I think they were lovers.”
“If they were lovers, why kill her?”
“I think it all started because Admiral Landgraab found out about the affair between Anastasia and my grandfather. She was a very beautiful woman and my grandfather was much younger than Admiral…”
“So, Langraab wanted to take a revenge?”
“I’m searching for Vaughan’s keystone. I learned from this journal that it’s supposed to be somewhere in this town,” told him Elisabeth and pointed at the journal in her hand.
“A keystone you say?”
“Yes. It’s the keystone to the tomb of the Scourge of Three Kingdoms. I really have to find it.”
“The Scourge of Three Kingdoms?”
“Long time ago, Dong Huo, a ruthless tyrant and later self-proclaimed Emperor of China, also known by the name Scourge of Three Kingdoms, was sealed in the Dragon’s cave by James Vaughan and the keystone was brought to Champs Les Sims. Unfortunately, Sin Pah didn’t write about it’s location,” said Elisabeth and flipped through the pages. “Do you have any idea where could it be?” she asked Jean Luc while raising her eyes from the journal.
“That sounds like an interesting story, Elisabeth,” Jean Luc smiled at her. “But do you really believe it?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” she said sternly.
“All right, all right. I don’t exactly know where you should be searching for this keystone, but if you say it opens the tomb of a Chinese Emperor, I believe it could be hidden in the secret vault in the Chateau du Landgraab.”
“A secret vault?”
“Oui. If I remember well, it should be located on the second floor.”
“Thank you!” Elisabeth smiled at him and stood up from the sofa.
“Wait! I have to warn you. Admiral Landgraab was a rampant theorist obsessed with military code. His mansion is shut up tighter than Napoleon’s tomb. You should be very careful.”
“Thanks for the advice. Do you have any suggestion on how to get inside?”
“Try the back door. There should be a hidden mechanism that unlocks it.”
“Thanks!” Elisabeth smiled at him, picked up the journal from the coffee table and walked towards the main door.
“Let me know if you find it. Good luck!” he told her and closed the door behind her.
Elisabeth returned to the hotel, started up the moped and drove up the hill towards Landgraab’s extensive estate.
The chateau was indeed very impressive. It literally took Elisabeth’s breath away. She decided to follow Jean Luc’s advice and avoided entering through the main entrance.
She walked around to the backyard, where she noticed a little cottage. This must be the groundskeeper’s quarters. Maybe I’ll come to give a look later, Elisabeth thought to herself and walked up to the back entrance to search for the secret mechanism that should unlock the door.
Given her experience gained in Shang Simla, the hidden switch wasn’t terribly hard to find. Elisabeth activated it and after a couple of seconds and a very loud click, the door magically opened, welcoming the uninvited visitor into the dark rooms undoubtedly dotted with ingenious traps.
Elisabeth entered inside, treading lightly trying to make as little contact with the parquet flooring as possible.
I wonder what happened here, Elisabeth thought to herself when she noticed black patches of ash scattered around the floor.
“Wait, this is not ash. This is gunpowder!” Elisabeth squeaked at the thought of blowing up together with the entire place.
Almost instantly, she felt a sharp pain piercing through her abdomen again. The pain moved upwards toward her heart, preventing her from breathing. She leaned on the wall, taking short shallow breaths until the pain went away.
Elisabeth got frightened when she felt something move inside her. That’s impossible, she tried to convince herself at the thought of being pregnant. It’s been only two days since we first- “Ouch!” Elisabeth screamed in pain. This was the moment when she realized the devastating truth. The prophecy was going to be fulfilled, unless she got rid of whatever was inside her. A stream of tears ran down her cheek as she slid down the wall to the floor. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to do.
After what seemed like an eternity, Elisabeth stood up and walked towards the staircase leading to the second floor. She was very careful with her steps, examining every single gunpowder patch for a possible hidden switch activating a very sophisticated combustion system causing the place to blow up in a matter of seconds.
Elisabeth walked down the right hallway and through the door at the end, she found herself in the master bedroom. She gave a look around and noticed an oddly looking wardrobe. When she approached closer, she understood it wasn’t a wardrobe at all.
She tried to push on it, but it wouldn’t move. Elisabeth noticed a crevice in the middle of the wooden panel. She put her hand inside and triggered a hidden switch…
… and bingo! It was a hidden door. Now that it was unlocked, Elisabeth pushed with all her body on the door and managed to get inside the vault.
The moment she stepped in, she saw it.
There it was in all its glory, the keystone of James Vaughan hanging peacefully for decades on the wall, silently waiting for the day when someone would find it and take it back to the one and only place it belonged – the lock to Dong Huo’s burial chamber deep within the Dragon cave.